Towers; or How the Boy Learned to Dream
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Towers; or How the Boy Learned to Dream

The wind was loud in her ears as she fell. Below were cloud banks the size of mountains, bigger than anything she’d ever seen. And yet, rivaling even that, the towers of white stone that penetrated oceans of clouds were somehow larger still. They stretched upward beyond reason, a paragon of infinity, with uncountable spires, ledges, and balconies cut into the smooth, white marble. Far below, so far that they were only specks against the deep blue of endless sky, she spotted tiny figures moving slowly across a narrow bridge connecting two of the massive spires. She aimed for it, reaching for a book with an intricate silver cover from a bag slung around her waist.

Tren leaned against a chunk of rough stone halfway along the bridge. The wind blew harshly out here, and he welcomed the breeze as it whistled past his flapping sleeves, rustling dark hair. He watched as the group of Nomads around him made the crossing. His parents were out there somewhere ahead, with the other old ones. It was impossible to tell which, as they all wore the same light, long robes and hoods. None of them spoke. Silence was a way of survival, though it had always seemed to him as useless tradition. This crossing would take only an hour, as the Tower had climbed close alongside another.

He wondered when the last time was that he had spoken to someone.

He considered, just for a moment, hurling himself off the edge of the bridge. No more dusty rooms, no more endless marches, no more silent months spent doing nothing but walking. Walking to nowhere. Climbing from tower to tower, for who knows how long now.

He looked over the edge, sighing. He straightened up, turning back to the caravan, something in him remaining in that spot, yearning to fling itself into the depths of the world.

And out of the corner of his eye, he saw a streak of blue, dark against cloud and bright sky, hurling down, down, and then she was close, close enough that he saw she was falling, arms spread, her eyes wide and wild, and she was… smiling. It hardly lasted a moment, and then she was gone, hurtling past the bridge, and he ran to the side and for the first time in maybe years, he shouted, he screamed, his voice cracking and quiet and his throat erupting in pain after being unused for so long.

But she was already gone, the dark blue blur vanished somewhere below the bridge. He stood there at the edge for another few minutes, thinking, breathing, his rapid heartbeat slowing again.

Tren turned from the bridge, from the parade of his clan, his family. He walked back, in his own direction, for the very first time.

It took most of a day, but Tren reached a gigantic staircase deep inside the tower. He paused, glancing back, where his clan had passed through earlier. By now they had reached the next tower, and probably started on the next journey upward. He wondered, briefly, if his parents had even noticed his absence.

His boots echoed on marble as he descended.

The staircase was grand, wide enough to fit the whole clan walking side by side if they had tried. The steps were not always pristine, some with large, spidering cracks and bits of rubble near the walls. Tapestries of strange color and design covered the curving walls of the descent. Occasionally the stairs would stop, turning into a platform, where looming archways revealed rooms filled with bookshelves, spreading ivy, and dust covered tables. He peered through each one, struggling to remember which the clan had journeyed through. So much of his life until now had been nothing but the same, monotonous marching.

He looked into one more room. Light shone from tiny gaps in the ceiling far above, illuminating slivers of worn stone bookshelves and broken, scattered furniture. Sitting against the remains of a slanted desk was the girl, dressed in dark blue. She’d started a small fire. Firelight danced across piles of moss-covered books. He stepped inside.

She noticed him a few steps in, her face hidden by a deep blue hood. She reached for a canvas bag next to her, her hand digging inside. Everything about her was tense. Tren stopped, taking his hands from his pockets. With empty hands, he again slowly approached her.

“You… were on the bridge. Before. Right?” she said, her voice sharp and clear. He winced unconsciously, unused to such a loud voice. He nodded, too overcome to speak. She seemed to relax a bit, dropping her bag and folding her arms. Tren stopped when he could feel the warmth of the small campfire. She was looking at him. Awkwardly, he reached into his pack. Again, she was tense, but he only pulled out a book. Unlike the ones scattered around the floor, it was free from mold, old but undamaged. He held it out to her.

She peered at him, confused. He gestured at his mouth, her head. He held the book out. “Your… your hair is almost white. You can eat this.” His voice was small, trembling, but the more he said, the easier it got.

She laughed, and it startled him more than anything else had so far. “You eat books? That’s so… strange. Really?” Now it was his turn to be confused.

“You aren’t… a Nomad?” She shook her head, and her hood fell back. Her hair was long and pale, nearly matching the faded marble she leaned against. She didn’t look weak, or starving, so he supposed it must be true. He returned the offered book to his pack.

“You can sit, if you want. I’m not sure how far this is from that bridge, but I bet it wasn’t close.” He nodded, and sat. She still was looking at him. Her eyes were bright, lighter than any he’d seen.

“Nomads…” he began, surprised that he’d started talking on his own this time, “have a… curse. When our hair, and our eyes, get lighter, in color, we have to… eat, I guess, ink. The ink from written words tastes better.” He’d never had to explain this to anyone, and realized how strange it sounded. Much of his life, he was beginning to realize, was very strange. The girl in blue listened, and he talked. The words that had been locked up for so long were finally set free.

“Clarissa!” He shouted, his voice echoing down marble hallways. Over the last few days, his discussions with Clarissa, the girl with pale hair, had revealed quite a lot to Tren. In particular, he’d come to the conclusion that the Nomads actively avoided anything strange or interesting as a way of survival. Since then, he’d used his instincts of ignoring the unusual to instead seek it out, and already he had found countless hidden wonders.

There were passages behind tapestries leading to rooms of transparent stone, where they had looked out at the wide sea of clouds covering the outer walls of the tower. Other towers stretched across the sky far off on the horizon, and sometimes even tiny specks far above would drift lazily through cloudbanks. Clarissa had called them airships, but Tren could hardly believe any Nomad would be bold enough to challenge the sky. They had spent all day watching the ships, until the light faded, and the stone become solid and dull again.

They had found fountains of golden water, lapping at the edges of stone sculptures of faceless lords. There were runes carved into the stone all around them, but the language was unreadable to them. In the alcoves were narrow staircases, and above the fountains ran balconies of intricate stonework. Hanging plants trailed vines and branches along the railings, and there were flowers in vibrant colors Tren had never seen. That night, they made camp under a massive tree growing from the wall nearby, its branches laden with tiny pink and orange leaves. They had awoken sometime during the night to the glow of fairy lights, tiny motes of gold flitting from flower to flower. The hanging plants from earlier now shone brighter than the flowers had, luminous under the stars. When they awoke the next morning, though, only ruins and dry fountains remained, the plants withered and lights gone.

Clarissa had spoken of her own journey as well. She never talked about her fall, or how she had ended up back inside the tower. But she would tell stories of how she had been trapped somewhere for a long, long time. The realm of a horror, a Lord of Rot. It had been a horrible place, with no light, no laughter, and no colors. But she had escaped, and she’d never, ever be trapped again, she’d said, her eyes shining with emotion. Tren supposed that was why she still peered around corners, nervous, always looking for… something, following her.

Sometimes Tren would wonder if he had been trapped all this time, here in the towers, here with the Nomads.

Hearing his shout, Clarissa appeared, walking across collapsed pillars of pale stone. “What is it?” she asked, jumping down next to him.

The two looked around the massive archway. Inside was the largest room they’d yet seen. Balconies and platforms lined the walls, going up and up until the open sky, with half the roof long since fallen away. Countless bookshelves and piles of tattered paper made dunes taller than people. At the far end of the room was an entire building, with intricately carved stone columns as walls and a dark dome engraved with points of white, faint lines connecting them in odd patterns.

Light shone from within the building as the day faded. Excitedly, Clarissa pulled him inside. She had never told him exactly what she was looking for, and each time they found a new wonder he could tell she left a bit more disappointed. They climbed over long wooden tables, passed stacks of books with titles of gibberish and pages of scribbled nonsense. Tren took some to store in his pack, for later. He’d never liked destroying the books that he could read.

They made it to the domed building as the sky darkened fully to night far above. As they passed through the marble columns, the walls of the gallery lit up, following the patterns drawn on walls and ceiling. “It’s called an… observatory, I think.” Clarrisa said, her head tilted up as they wandered through. “The little white dots are stars, and the lines connecting them… make pictures, or they’re supposed to.” Tren looked up as well, though he couldn’t make out anything from the patterns and lines himself. Ornate desks and scrolls were stacked against the walls. While Clarissa studied the walls, he returned to the entrance. The wooden furniture here would make for good firewood.

An hour or so later, Tren had a campfire blazing just inside the building's entrance. The two had thoroughly explored the observatory, and Clarissa had found a tiny room with a heavy lever inside. There was nothing in it, but Clarissa had grinned, declaring that she’d finally found it. “An elevator!” She’d laughed. “Finally, finally an elevator. No more days and days of stairs!” She’d explained to Tren that the elevator would take them either up or down, all on its own. He couldn’t wait to try it, but they had decided to wait for the morning, since he’d already started the campfire.

That night they talked for hours, Clarissa about her dreams of finding the mythical Library, a place of peace and knowledge that was infinite as the towers, and Tren about his own dreams. He would travel beyond the towers, where no Nomad had ever gone. And he would return, one day, and tell his clan about what was out there, and then maybe they would all go together, to journey somewhere new.

Sometime during the early morning, the fire went out.

Tren woke to screams.

A roiling mass of shadows was surrounding Clarissa, nearly blocking his view of her. He caught a glimpse of silver, of Clarissa mouthing something and a bright flash. The shadows recoiled for only a second, before rushing back in, more aggressive than before. He rushed to his feet, grabbing a charred bit of wood from the fire pit. “What is it?” He shouted, but his voice was quiet again, broken. He shivered. He took a step forward, towards the shadows. They came from nowhere, from cracks in the floor and behind bits of rubble. They were dark, countless hands that reached and grabbed and restrained her, helpless.

A harsh scraping noise came from behind. Tren, trembling, turned, and watched as a tall, bent figure draped with rusted iron chains approached the shadows. From beside it, Tren saw that under the ruined remains of cloth was a body of rotted wood, splintered and sharp. Its face was covered by loosely stretched skin, with no features save for a dim white light that glowed in the center, beneath the mottled flesh. It raised an arm, thin and crooked, and the shadows intensified, a solid whirling hurricane of blackness.

He could hear Clarissa scream, again.

Tren had never really felt like anything in his life mattered. He walked from place to place, he rested with his family and never spoke to them. He was hollow, empty, and hadn’t even realized it. Until she had fallen past him, wrenching him from both the clan and the pointless journey it had traveled.

He would not give her up.

He rushed the shadows, past the wooden horror that looked at him with naked desire. He bashed his makeshift club against the shadows, and they parted, leaving, and he saw Clarissa, gasping for breath, untouched. He sighed in relief. And then the shadows tore the stick from his hand, grabbed him and raised him up, holding him as the tall creature approached. Its face glowed brighter, and he heard its voice, though it didn’t speak.


Its words rang inside his mind. He strained, shouting out for Clarissa, for his family. For anyone. And as the wicked thing drew closer, its fetid claw caressing his arm, tearing through sleeve and skin alike, he saw her.

Clarissa had run to the elevator. She had pulled the lever. Gates of metal slammed closed, and the last he saw of her was pale hair and bright, sad eyes. The elevator descended, and most of him, the important parts, the parts that dreamed and hoped and laughed, went with it.

He turned back to the beast that was now scratching the floor before them with its long, narrow arm, drawing odd patterns and warped shapes. Tren's blood dripped slowly from the gashes on his arm onto the floor, filling the scratches and staining them brown. It straightened, apparently finished. Its face glowed brighter as it raised both arms, again speaking words without a voice, words that echoed endlessly in his head.

But Tren said his own words this time.

Clarissa had once asked about his curse, why it turned his hair and eyes lighter the longer he went without ink. He’d explained, and showed her. When he spoke a certain phrase, the written words of the book he held would turn to liquid, and flow down the center spine. He’d drink the ink as it dripped from the pages. His hair and eyes would darken, and his energy would recover. This was the Nomad’s curse, and as far as he knew, he had always had it. All of them did.

Both mind and body are sated by knowledge.” He spoke, not fully knowing why. A last resort, a prayer, instinct, maybe.

But the black hands, the shadows holding him, trembled and shook. They seemed to melt, and like ink, they flowed into the scratches on his arm that the creature had left. They filled the wounds and stayed, still, and he fell to the floor, free. The wooden horror paused, watching.

Tren struggled to stand. The marks on his arm flowed out again, a dark hand reaching out to steady him, then returned once he was steady. They stared at each other. The thing’s face glowed the brightest it ever had, and its voice screamed in his head.



It reached for him, but he fled, the black hands reaching for pillars and posts and flinging him along with desperate speed. He left the thing behind, and it howled.

It will find him. And then, it will hunt her down again. First an escapee, now a thief. It will not be denied. It will claim what it has lost.

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